CHARLEY PATTON: COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 1 (1929/2002)
1) Pony Blues; 2) A Spoonful Blues; 3) Down The Dirt Road Blues; 4) Prayer Of Death, Pt. 1; 5) Prayer Of Death, Pt. 2; 6) Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues; 7) Banty Rooster Blues; 8) Tom Rushen Blues; 9) It Won't Be Long; 10) Shake It And Break It; 11) Pea Vine Blues; 12) Mississippi Boweavil Blues; 13) Lord I'm Discouraged; 14) I'm Goin' Home; 15) Snatch It And Grab It; 16) A Rag Blues; 17) How Come Mama Blues; 18) Voice Throwin' Blues.
The easiest way to get one's Charley Patton homework done is to pick up some nifty 1-CD compilation with around 20-25 tracks on it — the man only recorded for about a five-year period, and not each of his songs was stunningly original, to put it mildly (not at all atypical of pre-war bluesmen — or any bluesmen, for that matter). However, since we here at Only Solitaire despise easy ways, the alternate comprehensive road means getting your hands on this 5-CD boxset of Charley Patton's Complete Recordings that covers every single released A- and B-side of his, a few surviving alternate takes, and plenty of additional stuff by other artists where Patton is sitting in on the sessions as a guest vocalist or a guest guitar player — or even is simply thought to be sitting in, with musicologists around the world wrecking their brains over a definitive proof of the man's presence or absence on said tracks.
Indeed, the man is just as much of a mystery to this world as his slightly later, and far more «flashily» mythologized colleague Robert Johnson. Just as with Johnson, there's only one surviving photo of Patton; just as Johnson, there are but a handful of legitimate recording sessions that survive; just as Johnson, the man had a unique musical presence that resonates particularly well with the singer-songwriting crowd — an «authenticity» and «honesty» without an ounce of smooth gloss that was typical of «urban blues» performers. Plus, Patton's recording years (1929-1934) pretty much correlate with the darkest Depression years, so he's even more of an epitome of the black man's (or, in fact, any man's) struggle and strife with the world than Johnson, who always comes off as a more introspective, self-immersed fellow.
The first disc of the boxset (we will take them one by one, as if they were five different records) is arguably the best one, covering a lengthy record session that, apparently, all took place on one day (June 14, 1929), with most of the tracks subsequently released on Paramount singles. Only the last four tracks are not really Patton, but a little-known bluesman called Walter "Buddy Boy" Hawkins, who was decent enough but whose main talent, supposedly, was in adding a bit of corny ventriloquism to the sessions (ʻVoice Throwin' Bluesʼ); Patton is thought to be providing second vocals on ʻSnatch It And Grab Itʼ, but that's about it — the other tracks just provide some extra context for the day.
Anyway, what truly interests us are the 14 tracks that Patton cut himself, and their coolness still shines through despite the crappy sound quality (very typical of all Paramount recordings at the time — the Depression hadn't even started yet, and they were already using subpar material for most of their pressings). For some reason, musicians and critics alike tend to single out ʻPony Bluesʼ — one of Charley's best covered songs and the one to have made it onto the National Recording Preservation Board — and this is why it holds an honorable first place on the disc; but honestly, I am not quite sure what makes it so much greater than any of the other songs, other than being a little slower and more somber than the rest. Maybe it is a bit more straightforwardly «bluesy» — much of the stuff played by Charley veered towards folk- or country-dance, or towards traditional gospel — but that does not necessarily make it more haunting and spirited than the superficially «lighter» material.
In any case, thing number one that strikes you about Patton is the voice — the «gravelley» one, a direct predecessor to Howlin' Wolf (who actually interacted with Patton in his younger days and was much influenced by him), though not quite as hellishly sharp-cutting: Patton's strength lies rather in his versatility, as he was capable of excellent modulation, going from high-pitched, near-falsetto stabs to the proverbial gravelley roar and back at will. After a few listens, you will never want to confuse Charley with anybody else — most of his colleagues had softer, smoother, silkier vocal tones, and when people in 1929 heard the guy sing "saddle up my black ma-a-a-a-are" with that low, scrapy, creaky voice of his, quite a few of them, I'm sure, could feel the Devil's breath on their necks (so you gotta love the Library of Congress' penchant for retro-Satanism). It's made even more amusing if you put the voice together with the photograph, which pictures such a handsome, clean-polished young man in a bowtie (with a rather sullen expression on his face, though — but black artists, unless it was a vaudeville thing, rarely smiled on photos those days in general, even when being relatively well paid).
Compared to That Voice, the man's guitar-playing style is somewhat underrated: like all famous pre-war Delta bluesmen, he has a free-flowing, inventive manner of handling the 12-bar blues structure, far less predictable than the strictly locked style of Chicago and post-Chicago electric bluesmen, but he never goes for «flashiness» like Blind Blake or Blind Lemon Jefferson: in fact, he never even takes a proper solo. He is, however, a master of quirky guitar licks — check out, for instance, the little high-pitched «smirk» that sums up each line of ʻMississippi Boweavil Bluesʼ, or the perfect synchronization of the up-down, up-down guitar and vocals on ʻA Spoonful Bluesʼ, or the percussive-tapping style on ʻDown The Dirt Road Bluesʼ. His bag of tricks is not limitless, and pretty soon they start repeating themselves, but Patton clearly paid attention to putting his personal musical stamp on those tunes, instead of simply using the guitar for basic accompaniment like so many B-level players of the era.
And he was quite versatile, too: there is no single overriding theme or mood that would unite these 14 tunes, all of them recorded on the same day. There's your basic ramblin'-man blues (ʻPony Bluesʼ, ʻDown The Dirt Road Bluesʼ), there's sex-crazed blues (ʻA Spoonful Bluesʼ, melodically quite far removed from the Willie Dixon version, but lyrically far more straightforward; ʻBanty Rooster Bluesʼ, a distant predecessor to ʻLittle Red Roosterʼ), there's gospel spirituals (ʻPrayer Of Deathʼ, ʻI'm Goin' Homeʼ), comical dance numbers (ʻShake It And Break Itʼ), and folk chants with a social underpinning (ʻMississippi Boweavil Bluesʼ). That Voice is the one thing that ties it all together, reigning over all the themes and moods like some bulky, brawny Earth Elemental, potentially dangerous but also capable of being your friend if you make all the right moves. Like giving the record a well-deserved thumbs up, for instance, regardless of the generally awful sound quality (which is reflected most badly on the guitar sound, but no crackles or pops can do away with The Voice).